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Europe: People helping refugees and migrants risk assault and jail as authorities abuse anti-smuggling laws

Amnesty has documented how police and prosecutors are abusing already flawed anti-smuggling laws and counter-terrorism measures © © Richard Burton/Amnesty International

Major report exposes how people are harassed for offering clothes, shelter and saving lives

British charity volunteer claims to have been assaulted by French police on way to migrant aid centre

Amnesty is calling on EU and member states to amend laws to protect human rights defenders

People in the UK and across Europe are being prosecuted and harassed for acts of compassion towards refugees, people seeking asylum and migrants - including the handing out of warm clothes, offering shelter, and saving lives at sea - Amnesty International said today. 

In a new report, Punishing compassion: solidarity on trial in Fortress Europe, Amnesty documents how police and prosecutors are abusing already flawed anti-smuggling laws and counter-terrorism measures to target human rights defenders who help vulnerable people. 

Amnesty is calling on the EU and its member states to amend the wording of laws relating to the ‘facilitation of irregular entry, transit and stay’ for migrants and refugees. By amending the definition of the offence and making it clear that it is only a crime if carried out ‘for material benefit’, it would prevent the laws from being misused to punish acts of solidarity. 

Elisa De Pieri, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International’s Europe office, said:

“The increased focus on limiting and deterring arrivals in Europe has meant that making refugees or migrants feel safer or welcomed is seen as a threat.

“The failure of European states to fulfil the basic needs of refugees and migrants means it is often left to ordinary people to provide essential services and support.

“By punishing the people who step up to fill the gaps, European governments are putting people on the move at even greater risk.”

Criminalised and intimidated for kindness

Many of the cases in Amnesty’s report focus on the charge of “facilitating irregular entry”, which has been used to target individuals and NGOs for a wide range of humanitarian and solidarity actions. 

French mountain guide Pierre Mumber faced trial on such charges for offering hot drinks and warm clothes to four West African asylum seekers in France. He was eventually acquitted on appeal.  

A strict border control regime on the French side of the Alps means refugees and migrants caught within 20km of the Italian border are considered to be "entering irregularly into France" and anybody assisting them risks prosecution. Access to asylum is extremely restricted if one is caught within this border area and push backs towards Italy are frequent.

In Switzerland, people including a pastor, have also been prosecuted and convicted simply for sheltering or helping foreign nationals accessing protection. The Swiss parliament will hold a parliamentary debate in the coming days that could lead to a change in the law on the facilitation of irregular entry.

However, even those not charged with specific offences face fear and harassment.

Last year a 20-year-old British volunteer, known as ‘E.B.’, who was working on a Human Rights Observer project was assaulted by French police. She and her colleague were physically restrained, verbally abused and threatened with tear gas for filming an unwarranted search of their car while making their way to a Dunkirk migrant camp aid centre.

A week later she reported the assault to a French police station but had her statement rejected and was advised not to attempt to file one at all. Officers finally accepted it after an hour of pleading. A month later, E.B. received a letter from the prosecutor’s office stating that the events and the information submitted in her complaint did not constitute a crime. She is currently considering whether to challenge this decision and has filed a complaint with the French ombudsperson office (Défenseur des Droits) and the IGPN (Inspection Générale de la Police nationale). E.B. was also questioned by police on her return to the UK.

Harassing NGOs and criminalising sea rescue

Civil society organisations have also been targeted and harassed through the misuse of criminal law. In Croatia, NGOs Are You Syrious and the Centre for Peace Studies have been harassed, intimidated and prosecuted for “facilitating irregular migration” after documenting and reporting on people being pushed back with excessive force by police at the borders with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. 

In Italy, rescuers who save the lives of those making the journey to Europe on unseaworthy boats have been subjected to smear campaigns, criminal investigations, forced to follow a code of conduct which can delay rescues, and left stranded at sea without a safe port to disembark the people they rescue. Since August 2017, the Italian authorities have impounded NGO vessels on multiple occasions, leaving fewer boats available for rescue operations even as the rate of deaths at sea increased in 2018 and 2019. 

Spanish authorities have misused administrative laws to restrict the rescue activities of NGO ships, threatening them with fines up to €901,000 (£785,000).  

In Greece, trained rescue workers Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder were in pre-trial detention for months after the Greek authorities arrested them for assisting refugees arriving on the island of Lesvos. They are still awaiting trial on baseless charges including facilitating irregular entry and espionage.   

Sarah Mardini said: “We volunteered to assist those in need. We could spend 25 years in jail for aiding survivors, but if you ask me now if I would change anything, knowing that my life could be turned upside down as a result, I am telling you that I would do the exact same thing.” 

Human Rights Defenders must be protected

People who act to help and protect human rights are defined as human rights defenders in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Under the Declaration, states are required to guarantee a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate without fear of reprisals. 

European leaders must put in place measures to implement the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders within the EU and ensure that no one is prosecuted simply for their human rights work.

Elisa De Pieri added:

“Authorities must stop criminalising human rights defenders. History will not look kindly on governments that treat saving lives as a crime.

“Many people across Europe have shown far greater compassion and humanity towards people seeking safety than their governments have. It is outrageous that human rights defenders are being targeted by callous authorities bent on closing their borders at all costs."

Punishing compassion: solidarity on trial in Fortress Europe: Full report

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